Socialist Worker

How the British government brought the gun into Irish politics

by Chris Bambery
Issue No. 1962

“The IRA put the gun into Irish politics,” is the message pumped out ceaselessly by politicians and the media.

Yet the truth is rather different. The gun was always present in Northern Ireland — from the state’s very inception in 1921, the police were always armed.

In August 1969 the Provisional IRA did not exist — in fact there were no effective Republican military organisations in Northern Ireland. But that changed after 12 August 1969, when Derry exploded in anger.

The Unionist government had decided to allow Protestant supremacists to march through Derry city centre, despite overwhelming opposition in a city where the majority were Catholics. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) poured into the city to ensure the march went ahead.

The mood in the Bogside area of Derry was angry. The previous October a civil rights demonstration had been brutally beaten off the street by the same police. In April police had burst into a house and beaten an unarmed man to death.

Residents of the Bogside erected barricades to stop the march entering their community. The police baton charged, but they were repulsed with stones.

That night they attacked again and entered the Bogside before being driven back by petrol bombs. The area was under siege.

On 13 August police fired live rounds, wounding three people — the first shots fired in Derry.

The next day British home secretary, Labour’s James Callaghan, received a phone call from the Northern Ireland cabinet requesting that British troops be deployed in Derry.

At 4pm on 14 August British troops entered the Bogside. For residents their immediate reaction was relief. But in Belfast things were turning even nastier.

The RUC spearheaded a Protestant mob in an all?out assault on the Catholic Lower Falls area of the city. Police opened fire with heavy machine guns mounted on armoured cars.

Over two nights eight people were killed, 500 Catholic homes burnt out and 1,500 Catholic families forced to flee the area.

Republican activists in the city came together in the aftermath of this pogrom to create the Provisional IRA. The overwhelming motivation was to ensure that never again would Catholic areas be defenceless.

For 50 years Britain had presided over a state it had carved out in the north eastern corner of Ireland on the basis of a sectarian head count that would ensure a permanent Unionist majority.

Catholics were second class citizens in Northern Ireland, discriminated against in jobs, housing and education. Electoral boundaries were rigged to ensure Unionists ran towns like Derry, despite them having Catholic majorities.

The security of the state was guaranteed by an armed all-Protestant police force and by repressive laws that won the admiration of the racist rulers of South Africa.

By agreeing to send in troops, the Labour government also decided to prop up this rotten system.

That policy held for a quarter of a century. The Provisional IRA swelled into the most efficient guerilla force in the developed world, enjoying mass support in Northern Ireland.

Their best recruitment sergeant was the British government. In a long catalogue of state repression three events stand out.

In the early hours of 9 August 1971 hundreds of Catholics were dragged from their homes to be interned indefinitely without trial.

On Bloody Sunday — 30 January 1972 — the crack paratroop regiment was deployed in Derry with orders to flush out the IRA.

A massive civil rights demonstration was taking place and the IRA had removed its weapons from the area. British paras opened fire killing 13 unarmed, innocent civilians.

Finally in May 1981 Bobby Sands died on hunger strike in prison. As an IRA volunteer he had demanded recognition as a political prisoner. Nine other prisoners died on hunger strike.

On each of these three occasions, membership and support for the IRA swelled.


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Features
Sat 6 Aug 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1962
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